By Andrew M. Seaman
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - While celebrities make headlines for losing or gaining a few pounds today, a new account suggests weight trouble is nothing new for those in the spotlight.
A report of letters between the late William H. Taft and his doctor shows the former president also struggled to slim down at the turn of the 20th Century.
Deborah Levine, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Providence College in Rhode Island, reports that in 1905, while Taft was still secretary of war, he enlisted the help of a doctor to help him overcome obesity.
"Though the theory has changed, the practice really hasn't," Levine said of the weight loss methods Taft's doctor ordered.
Specifically, Dr. Nathaniel E. Yorke-Davies of London sent Taft a list of foods he was and wasn't allowed to eat. Yorke-Davies also ordered Taft to weigh himself every day and report back weekly with a letter.
Levine writes in the Annals of Internal Medicine that Taft's sister-in-law recommended Yorke-Davies to the future president.
In his first letter to Yorke-Davies, Taft said he wanted to lose weight to relieve several conditions, including heartburn, indigestion and fatigue. For a price, the doctor agreed to help.
The diet required Taft to eat and drink certain foods at specific times of the day.
For example, Taft was told to slowly sip a cup of hot water with lemon each morning at 8 a.m. and then have a breakfast of biscuits and lean meat an hour later.
Stewed fruit, cooked vegetables and "clear soup" were also part of his prescribed diet.
At the beginning of their correspondence, Taft weighed in at 314 pounds. Yorke-Davies wrote to Taft that he'd have to lose 80 pounds or more.
The two frequently sent letters back and forth. Although there's no evidence that Taft and Yorke-Davies ever met in person, the doctor closely monitored the future president's habits.
Taft's letters included information on what he ate, what he weighed and how frequently he used the bathroom. The doctor also checked up on Taft's progress by sending letters to the people around him, such as his family and advisors.
Soon, Taft reported that he was feeling better and some of his conditions such as heartburn had improved.
By April of 1906, Taft had lost about 60 pounds and had asked to be put on a diet to maintain his then weight of 255 pounds.
At 6 feet, 2 inches tall, he would still have been considered obese by today's standards.
"Everybody says that I am looking very well, which indicates I suppose that I have a good color," wrote Taft to his brother about his diet, "… but I am pretty continuously hungry. That, however, is a good symptom. I suppose."
Despite his initial success, Taft continued to struggle with his weight and weighed 354 pounds when he was inaugurated as president in 1909. His rumored encounter with a bathtub continues to be a well-known piece of presidential trivia.
"He's not representative, but he is somewhat symbolic," Levine said of Taft's struggles.
For example, Taft had the advantage of being a well-known person who could access and pay weight loss experts, but he continued to have ups and downs with losing weight.
"That is reminiscent of a lot of patients in long term treatment for obesity, but there are a lot of things that are different," Levine told Reuters Health, such as the option of weight loss surgery.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/Ms1ZbQ Annals of Internal Medicine, online October 14, 2013.